Jesus for Disciples of Christ

For Christians, God’s identity is revealed in the person of Jesus. He is the one who defines for us God’s nature and purpose.  He is, the “human face of God,” or in John’s reflections, he is the Word of God incarnate. One might expect to find a discussion of the nature of God to precede a discussion of Jesus and his identity. But this placement isn’t unique. The Preamble to the Design, a brief confessional statement that introduces the governing document of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) begins with the confession that Jesus is the Christ. In the Preamble, we hear these words of confession:
We confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God,and proclaim him Lord and Savior of the World . . .
Through baptism into Christ we enter into newness of lifeand are made one with the whole people of God.

Therefore, question for Disciples is this: Who is this Jesus whom we confess to be the Christ, the Son of Living God, and our Lord and Savior? 

                Conversations about Jesus center on such questions as his humanity, his divinity, his work and his ministry. The biblical text offers a number of voices in answer to these questions. John’s Gospel, for instance, declares Jesus to be the Word of God incarnate (John 1:1-14). The author of Colossians speaks of him as the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Paul calls him Lord (Phil. 2:11). In Matthew, Peter answers Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” with the bold affirmation: “You are the Messiah and Son of God” (Mt 16:16). Throughout history all manner of answers have been given to this question as to the identity of Jesus.  The answers have run the gamut from mere humanity to expressions of divinity. Some focus on his ministry and his teachings, while others focus on his death and resurrection. 

                If we focus on the person of Jesus, then we may focus on an individual in history, whom we name as the Messiah and Lord.  There is in this confession a certain “scandal of particularity.”  Jesus is male and Jewish.  He lived in a particular time and place. Feminist theologians have raised questions about what the maleness of Jesus signals to us. Elizabeth Johnson notes two effects of this maleness of Jesus. First, it reinforces the idea that God is male, since Jesus is the revelation of God, then God must be male. Secondly, Jesus’ maleness raises questions about how we view humanity. If Jesus’ gender is included in the definition of the essence of human existence, then women will find themselves in a subordinate position. Thus, as we reflect on the particularity of Jesus’ humanity, Johnson asks a very appropriate question about the possibility that God could be incarnate as a woman. She answers the question in the affirmative— “If women are genuinely human and if God is the deep mystery of holy love, then what is to prevent such an incarnation?”[Elizabeth Johnson, Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology, (New York: Crossroad, 1990), pp. 106-107]. Besides gender there is the question of ethnic identity—to what extent does Jesus’ Jewishness constitute his identity. We can push this question even further to consider color.  For many, if most Europeans and Euro-Americans, Jesus is by definition—white. The pictures many of us grew up with in Sunday school reinforced this view.   

                If we focus on the word Christ, then perhaps we can gain a broader sense of this identity. Christ is the Greek word for Messiah, but even here we are rooted in Jewish understandings. Other terms emerged as the message made its way into other communities—thus Paul lifts up the idea of Jesus as Lord. Lord has a number of connotations. It speaks to one in charge, one who rules.  And in Jewish context, Lord is used as a word for Yahweh, God.  As we ponder his identity, we will need to consider the nuances of these ancient words and what they might mean for us today.

Who Was Jesus?

            As we ponder the question of Jesus’ identity as it relates to us as modern Disciples of Christ, it is best to start with the earliest testimonies. Although much of what we know about the person of Jesus comes from the four Gospels, Paul’s witness is earlier. Paul, however, says very little about the life and teachings of Jesus and focuses his attention on the confession that Jesus is Christ and Lord. There is a strong focus on the effects of the cross and the resurrection on believers. That is, Paul is more interested in the resurrected Christ than he is in the historical Jesus. There may be several reasons for this, but it means that Paul's letters, which are prior to the Gospels, give us little in the way of information about Jesus. There are also sporadic references to the person of Jesus in extra-biblical sources, including the writings of the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius, as well as the Jewish historian Josephus, but this information is rather sparse in detail. Beyond the canonical Gospels and a few historical references outside the Bible, there are a number apocryphal gospels, which for a variety of reasons were not deemed authentic.

                When we come to the Gospels, we do not have a single picture.  Some writers have attempted to create a "life of Christ in stereo."  These efforts try to harmonize the four very different gospels into one connected narrative.  Thus, for example, our picture of Jesus' birth has both shepherds and magi present in the same scene, even though Luke has the shepherds and Matthew the Magi, while Mark and John don’t have an infancy account at all. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the New Testament picture of Jesus is quite complex and requires some effort to get the picture straight. What we need to do is ask the question of the relevance of that picture for modern Christians. Why should we even pay attention to the message of the Gospels?    
                If you follow the story from the biblical context to the developing Christian tradition, you will find that the focus turns from the historical Jesus to a Jesus who is both human and divine. Tmore developed Christology. That is, over time, the focus turns from the human to the divine – though as one can see from the confessional debates, there was a concerted effort to keep these two together.  Both Nicea/Constantinople (325/381) and Chalcedon (451) sought to affirm the full divinity of Christ and his full humanity. Consider this confession from the Nicene Creed.
    We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.    Through him all things were made.    For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.    For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.    On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.    He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

There is a witness here to humanity, but it is couched in a confession of Christ’s full divinity.

                At Chalcedon, nearly a century after Constantinople, the Bishops of the churches came together once again to deal with questions about the relationship of the humanity and divinity of Christ.                              
Following the holy Fathers, we unanimously teach and confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, composed of rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father as to his divinity and consubstantial with us as to his humanity; "like us in all things but sin." He was begotten from the Father before all ages as to his divinity and in these last days, for us and for our salvation, was born as to his humanity of the virgin Mary, the Mother of God. 
We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation. The distinction between natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person (prosopon) and one hypostasis.
Note here the further development of a specific understanding of the person of Christ.  That definition has been definitive for Christians, from that time to the present, although there have always been those who challenge this “orthodoxy.”

Christmas, Good Friday and Easter

                One way to look at the life of Jesus in light of the church’s witness is to think in terms of three movements or seasons that stir our imaginations—Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter.

                The story begins with Christmas, which gives witness to the premise that it is in Christ, the babe of Bethlehem, that God has become present in our world. It is a message announced and affirmed by angels, shepherds, and magi from the East. The witness of Matthew’s gospel suggests that this appearance served to unsettle the powers that be (Mt. 2:1-18). It is worth noting that nothing is said of a birth in Paul or in two of the four gospels, still, the witness of Christmas is powerful. In one of his early sermons theologian Karl Barth wrote:  

                To celebrate Christmas means to see salvation. The birth of Jesus was its beginning, its dawn, its coming. Here was only the infant and not yet all the great and wonderful things that would go forth and unfold from this child, who came into the world so that the world might become new.  Yet in the child Jesus the new world itself was already present; in the beginning was the end; in the seed, the certain guarantee of the coming fruit.  Not a half of something, nor something partial and imperfect, but complete salvation, the salvation that God prepares for and gives the world, is present in the child. To celebrate Christmas means to see salvation. [Karl Barth and William H. Willimon, The Early Preaching of Karl Barth: Fourteen Sermons with Commentary by William Willimon, (Louisville: WJK Press, 2009), p. 79].
                On Good Friday, the mournful hymn cries out: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  The Christian story includes a day of darkness, a day when the powers and principalities struck at God’s message of love and forgiveness, fearing its challenge to the status quo. There is a sense here too that in the cross, God experiences our suffering, sharing in the God-forsakenness of Christ. Jürgen Moltmann, who has reflected much on this question of Christ’s suffering, writes that God suffers with us:
                In Christ’s God-forsakenness, God goes out of himself, forsakes his heaven and is in Christ himself, is there, present, in order to become the God and Father of the forsaken.  Christ dies with a cry for God, by whom he feels forsaken.  Where is God in what happens on Golgotha?  He is in the dying Christ.  To the question “why” there are many answers and none of them are adequate.  More important is the question “where.” And for that Christ is the answer. [Jürgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today’s World, Margaret Kohl, trans., (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1994), p. 38].
                Finally, we reach Easter. For modern Christians, the resurrection of Jesus, more than the cross, is a stumbling block to faith. The resurrection seems to require of us a suspension of a scientific world view.  There is much debate about how literally we should take this central event in Christian faith. Is it metaphor or a physical event?  That debate is a long one and must be put off, but we can wrestle with the meaning of resurrection.  As Brian Wren puts it “Christian faith begins with resurrection.” Indeed, without it, “Jesus of Nazareth was only one in a long line of Jewish rebels executed by the Roman state.” Wren, who is an extraordinary writer of hymns, notes that “hymns don’t discuss faith. They express it.” Thus, it is in our hymnody that we best express the realities of Easter, realities that exist not just in the past, but which have cosmic effect. He points to a hymn by John Geyer, that “pictures Christ winning a wrestling match with death, on our behalf:”

                We know that Christ is raised and dies no more.

                Embraced by futile death, he broke its hold, 

           and our despair he turned to blazing joy.  Alleluia! 
                A new creation comes to life and grows
                as Christ’s new body takes on flesh and blood.
             The universe, restored and whole will sing: Alleluia!
[Brian Wren, Hymns for Today, (Louisville: WJK Press, 2009), p. 7-8]. 

In the resurrection the cross finds its meaning.  It is not the final word, for new life emerges from death.


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